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Conservatory-quality online piano lessons from the City of Music, Vienna, Austria

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Sight Reading and Timing

reading music

Question: Hello,

I have been playing with the piano now for four years. The first two years I have been teaching myself while my daughter was taking lessons. Now as of November of this year it will be two years that I have been taking lessons with a teacher, my daughter has discontinued lessons. I am presently caught in a rut…. One major thing that I did not do while teaching myself for two years is pay attention to sight reading and timing. My teacher found this out and she sent me back to beginner books to establish my sight reading and timing. She told me to practice 10 minutes a day on beginners books and the rest of the time on level 2 John Thompson, and needless to say I am struggling. What should I do?????? She also has me working out of the Czerny book for technique.

– Brian (Northumberland, Pennsylvania, USA)

Albert’s reply: Your teacher has given you very sound general advice. To address technique briefly first, I dislike the idea of practicing Czerny “for technique,” since technique is a matter of expression and never a thing in itself; hence, everything we play should properly contribute to our technique. I explain more in the lesson on piano exercises. In the meantime, practice Czerny “for music,” knowing that the patterns will contribute to your technical fluency.

Always remember that whenever you’re stuck on a problem, there is something you can do to simplify it. Often slowing down is all you need. If you’re struggling with sight reading notes and rhythm, you need to simplify by working on these two areas separately.

Your sight reading level will always lag behind that of the pieces you are learning for performance. I recommend sight reading each new piece in several phases. First, start with the rhythm. Do nothing more than tap the rhythm as you count – you should not play anything at this stage. If your piece is in 2/4 meter, count out loud, “One, two. One, two. One, two,” or, if the music is slow enough (or you are practicing slowly, as you should), “One and two and one and two and….” Note that “out loud” does not mean “under your breath.” It means out loud! Your voice should be as loud as your playing. You’ll be amazed at how much this simple tip will improve your rhythmic accuracy.

Next, practice hands separately. Play one hand while tapping with the other, always counting out loud. Once you have gained comfort with one hand, switch hands. You’ll invariably find that it’s more difficult to tap with your weaker hand, which is what makes this such a valuable exercise.

I’m guessing – as a matter of fact I’d bet anything on it – that you’re not yet able to read music notes with as much ease as you read printed letters and words. This is a skill that my How to Read Sheet Music course addresses in detail. Once you have completed the course you will be able to pick up any piece of piano music and immediately identify each note, without a moment’s hesitation. This skill is a necessary precursor to sight reading – without it your sight reading efforts will continue to be a needless struggle. I designed the course for people in exactly your position and I’m confident it will go a long way towards alleviating your present challenge. I’m not trying to sell you on my course for the sake of making a sale – it’s simply what you need at this point in your studies.

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